The Special Relationship Between America And The United Kingdom Continues To Thrive

Thursday, January 1, 2009 - 01:00

The Editor interviews the Hon. Sir Nigel Sheinwald, KCMG, British Ambassador to the United States.

Editor: Sir Nigel, would you tell our readers something about your professional experience?

Sheinwald: I am a professional diplomat. I joined the Foreign Service in 1976 following Oxford - Balliol College - so I have had over 32 years working in the British diplomatic service. That includes a four-year stint in Washington in the 1980s, when I served in our political section on UK-U.S. relations concerning Northern Ireland and American domestic politics. I covered the 1984 presidential election at that time.

Prior to becoming ambassador, I served as ambassador to the EU for several years, following which - from 2003 to 2007 - I was the Prime Minister's National Security Advisor. I should also mention that my first posting, back in the 1970s, was in Moscow. My career has been in trans-Atlantic relations and the politics of the EU specifically and in foreign relations generally.

Editor: You mentioned your most recent service as Tony Blair's National Security Advisor. Would you comment on the high points - and the low - of that experience?

Sheinwald: I enjoyed working closely with the Prime Minister on some very important issues during testing times. This includes working on the 2005 G-8 Summit, which was held in Scotland and where we believe the UK moved the agenda on both climate change and helping the world's poorest nations, particularly those in Africa, to a considerable degree. I traveled extensively in connection with the Middle East during this period, and those trips included Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Syria and negotiations with the Libyan government in connection with the reintegration of that country into the international system. I also dealt with Iran's chief negotiator on a number of issues. These were very difficult times, but extremely rewarding in terms of professional challenge.

The most exciting moment during this period, I think, came with London being awarded the 2012 Olympics over Paris and Madrid. We came from behind, so this was a matter of great satisfaction for us.

With respect to difficult moments, the 7 July 2005 London bombings, which occurred just as the G-8 Summit was beginning, was particularly challenging. Of course this was a real blow, but the Prime Minister was determined to show the world the face of a civilized country in reaction to the atrocity, to show that the terrorists would not be accorded a victory of any kind, and that the British people would rebound. In recent years there has often been bad news emanating from Afghanistan and Iraq, but we have remained determined to find a way through.

Editor: Please tell us about your responsibilities.

Sheinwald: Let me start by saying what a fantastic privilege it is to be asked to do this job. The relationship between our two countries is rightly called a special one. We share many interests and subscribe to the same values, and we have a long history of working together, in peace and war, to defend those values. It is a privilege to be able to contribute to that relationship. As British ambassador, I do a great deal of traveling, and I find, both in Washington and across the country, that there is a great deal of appreciation for the things that the UK is attempting to do internationally. I have enjoyed access to a wide range of people in government and politics, business, the arts, the academic world, and so on. This exposure to the complexity and diversity of America is one of the wonderful aspects of my job, but it is also a challenge. One never stops learning in a position like this. Fortunately, I have a great deal of help. In addition to the embassy, we have nine offices around the country, which gives you some idea of how important the relationship is to us.

Editor: David Miliband, the British Foreign Secretary, recently spoke to the American press about the Middle East peace process. You have more than a little familiarity with that process. Would you share with us your thoughts about the role the UK can play here?

Sheinwald: British foreign policy has a longstanding focus on the Middle East peace process, and we hope that the Obama administration will make it a priority among the issues to be dealt with early on during its term of office. The Middle East peace process is one of those transcendent issues that, provided progress is made, can have a very positive impact not only on the region as a whole but also on Muslim opinion across the world. To this end, the UK and the EU have provided a great deal of economic assistance and support, particularly in attempting to build Palestinian institutions and assist their economy. We are helping with security on the West Bank, and the EU has long been the major provider of economic aid to the Palestinians.

Since leaving political office, Tony Blair has become, effectively, the representative of the entire international community to the Middle East peace process. As Special Envoy of the Quartet - comprising the EU, the U.S., Russia and the UN - he represents this group in the difficult but vital job of building Palestinian institutions, particularly in the West Bank.

Another role for the UK, and for the other major European countries, concerns Iran. The UK, France and Germany all have embassies in Tehran, and each of us is engaged in a tough but, we think, essential dialogue with the Iranians. We are also working closely with the U.S. government and with Russia and China to form a multilateral front to try to persuade Iran against pursuing a nuclear weapons program. This has been one of the major priorities of British foreign policy in recent years, and I am certain it will continue after President-elect Obama takes office.

Editor: And the role of the UK as a voice of moderation in an area that has known little but extremism in recent years?

Sheinwald: We are committed to the fight against extremism and radicalization. We understand, of course, that winning this fight is neither easy nor something that can be accomplished overnight. This is about hearts and minds, and it requires a considerable amount of patience. There is also a need for a hard edge at times, particularly when we are dealing with people who are essentially irreconcilable and who plan to do or have already done great injury to our countries.

This battle requires the deployment of all of our intelligence resources, our law enforcement capabilities and, on occasion, our military forces. Above all, we must be willing to engage in a battle of ideas, and that requires us to have confidence in our way of life and our systems of governance. A real belief in the values we profess is essential if we are to engage in meaningful dialogue with Muslim communities at home and abroad, and that includes promoting the discussion between our own Muslim communities and a variety of Muslim societies across the world. We believe we have a great many allies in those societies, moderates who have as much stake - perhaps more -as we in promoting moderation and resisting extremism and hatred. Working with such allies, I think, we will be able to ensure that the terrorists will not win.

Editor: One of the themes or our publication is the rule of law, and specifically progress on the rule of law in places that have known somewhat rougher governance arrangements. Commitment to the rule of law has been a particularly strong aspect of British foreign policy. How does the UK go about attempting to influence this particular discussion?

Sheinwald:We believe - with our American friends - that the principles underlying the rule of law are an indispensable foundation for democracy, human rights and the long-term security of all societies.

In Afghanistan that support expresses itself, at least in part, through efforts to fight the narcotics trade. We believe that it will be difficult if not impossible for the Afghan people to build a stable democracy on top of an economy that is dominated by that trade. Accordingly, much of our economic aid is directed to this area, including funding for police, prosecutors and judges specially trained to deal with the drug trade.

We have provided substantial training to the Iraqi police in recent years, and we continue to provide equipment, including some very sophisticated forensics equipment, to these forces. This appears to be having a positive impact on the situation, particularly in Basra and the south of the country.

In Malawi we have conducted some 200 primary justice forums to help the Malawi judiciary address a variety of property, land transfer, child maintenance and other issues. This constitutes our modest contribution to their village justice system.

One of our flagship programs in China brings some 15 Chinese lawyers to England to study for a year under the auspices of the Lord Chancellor Justice Minister. The program also permits six Chinese judges to study in the UK for a similar period.

Editor: Prior to stepping down as Prime Minister, Tony Blair spoke about the UK's role as a bridge between the U.S. and Europe. Gordon Brown has not appeared to make any similar assertion, at least not explicitly. Is there anything to be read into this?

Sheinwald: I don't think so. Gordon Brown and Tony Blair are very close in their views of the U.S. Prime Minister Brown has spent a greatdealof time in America, and he is committed to promoting the special relationship that exists between our two countries. Like his predecessor, he also wishes the UK to have an important voice in Europe, as evidenced by the leadership role he has taken in response to the current global financial markets crisis. It is also the case that both France and Germany have leaders today who are considerably more pro-American than their predecessors - something that our Prime Minister has welcomed - and that is helpful in connection with the relationship already in place between the U.S. and the UK.

Editor: Speaking of which, would you share with us your thoughts about British expectations of the new Administration?

Sheinwald: The Prime Minister has met the President-elect a couple of times during the course of the year, and there has been considerable contact with the team that is emerging as we move toward the Inauguration. We believe Barack Obama is committed to a good relationship with the UK and with the rest of Europe. Many of the things he has addressed during the election campaign, including his desire to reaffirm an American style of leadership based on interest and values and for a more cooperative and consultative way of conducting international relations, have been welcomed by the UK and by its European partners. The use of international institutions, such as the UN, to a greater degree than in the past is also something that we see as a common goal with the incoming Administration. And, of course, we place Afghanistan and Pakistan as among the highest priorities for all of us.

Editor: What do you think Britain's role in the global economy is going to be over the next few years?

Sheinwald: Today's economic and financial problems are global, and we need a global response to them. We will accomplish much more by working together than attempting to face challenges such as the current crisis in the world's financial markets alone. Prime Minister Brown has made clear that, although each of us has to take national measures in the crisis, doing so within an effective international framework is the only way to achieve success. We were strongly in support of the G20 meeting in November in Washington, DC which President Bush chaired and which attempted to reach agreement on such a response.

There is no question but that the international system of financial regulation and supervision, including the IMF and the World Bank, need to be overhauled. We also need to coordinate the economic stimulus policies which a number of governments are adopting to address the crisis. We expect to be working with President-elect Obama and his team on this before the first economic G20 summit he will attend in April, which, incidentally, will be held in London and chaired by Prime Minister Brown.